CALDWELL V. MISSISSIPPI, 472 U. S. 320 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320 (1985)

Caldwell v. Mississippi

No. 83-6607

Argued February 25, 1985

Decided June 11, 1985

472 U.S. 320


In a bifurcated proceeding conducted pursuant to Mississippi's capital punishment statute, petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Petitioner's lawyers, in their closing argument at the sentencing stage, referred to petitioner's youth, family background, and poverty, as well as to general character evidence, and they asked the jury to show mercy, emphasizing that the jury should confront the gravity and responsibility of calling for another's death. In response, the prosecutor urged the jury not to view itself as finally determining whether petitioner would die, because a death sentence would be reviewed for correctness by the Mississippi Supreme Court. That court unanimously affirmed the conviction, but affirmed the death sentence by an equally divided court, rejecting, in reliance on California v. Ramos, 463 U. S. 992, the contention that the prosecutor's comments violated the Eighth Amendment.

Held: The death sentence is vacated.

443 So.2d 806, reversed in part and remanded.

JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to all but Part IV-A, concluding that:

1. Where an examination of the decision below as to the issue of the prosecutor's comments does not indicate that it rested on adequate and independent state grounds, namely, petitioner's failure to comply with a Mississippi procedural rule as to raising the issue on appeal, this Court does not lack jurisdiction to decide the issue. Pp. 472 U. S. 326-328.

2. It is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe, as the jury was in this case, that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant's death rests elsewhere. Belief in the truth of the assumption that sentencers treat their power to determine the appropriateness of death as an "awesome responsibility" has allowed this Court to view sentencer discretion as consistent with and indispensable to the Eighth Amendment's "need for reliability in the determination that death is appropriate punishment in a specific case." Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U. S. 280, 428 U. S. 305 (plurality opinion). Pp. 472 U. S. 328-330.

3. There are several reasons to fear substantial unreliability, as well as bias in favor of death sentences, when there are state-induced suggestions

Page 472 U. S. 321

that the sentencing jury may shift its sense of responsibility to an appellate court. Pp. 472 U. S. 330-334.

(a) The "delegation" of sentencing responsibility that the prosecutor here encouraged would not simply postpone petitioner's right to a fair determination of the appropriateness of his death; rather, it would deprive him of that right, for an appellate court, unlike the sentencing jury, is ill-suited to evaluate the appropriateness of death in the first instance. Pp. 472 U. S. 330-331.

(b) Even when a sentencing jury is unconvinced that death is the appropriate punishment, it might nevertheless wish to "send a message" of extreme disapproval for the defendant's acts. This desire might make the jury very receptive to the prosecutor's assurance that it can err because the error can be corrected on appeal. A defendant might then be executed, although no sentencer had ever determined that death was the appropriate sentence. Pp. 472 U. S. 331-332.

(c) If a jury understands that only a death sentence, and not a life sentence, will be reviewed, it will also understand that any decision to "delegate" responsibility for sentencing can only be effectuated by returning a death sentence. This presents the specter of the imposition of death based on an irrelevant factor, and would also create the danger of a defendant's being executed without any determination that death was the appropriate punishment. P. 472 U. S. 332.

(d) The uncorrected suggestion that the jury's responsibility for any ultimate determination of death will rest with others presents the danger that the jury will choose to minimize the importance of its role, especially where, as here, the jury is told that the alternative decisionmaker is the State's highest court. Pp. 472 U. S. 332-333.

4. As to the State's contention that the prosecutor's argument was an "invited" response to defense counsel's argument, and thus was not unreasonable, neither the State nor the court below explains how the prosecutor's argument was less likely to have distorted the jury's deliberations because of anything defense counsel said. Pp. 472 U. S. 336-337.

5. Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U. S. 637, does not preclude a finding of constitutional error based on the sort of impropriety that the prosecutor's argument contains. Although that case warned against holding every improper and unfair argument of a state prosecutor to be a federal constitutional violation, it did not insulate all prosecutorial comments from federal constitutional objections. Pp. 472 U. S. 337-340.

JUSTICE MARSHALL, joined by JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and JUSTICE STEVENS, delivered an opinion with respect to Part IV-A, concluding that California v. Ramos, supra, is not authority for holding that States are free to expose capital sentencing juries to any

Page 472 U. S. 322

information and argument concerning postsentencing procedures. In Ramos, the Court, in upholding a state statutory requirement that capital sentencing juries be instructed that the Governor could commute a life sentence without possibility of parole into a lesser sentence, rested on a determination that the instruction was both accurate and relevant to a legitimate state penological interest. In contrast, here the argument was neither accurate nor relevant to such an interest, but was misleading and was not linked to any valid sentencing consideration. Pp. 472 U. S. 335-336.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR, being of the view that the prosecutor's remarks were impermissible because they were inaccurate and misleading in a manner that diminished the jury's sense of responsibility, concluded that Ramos, supra, does not sanction a misleading picture of the jury's role, nor does it suggest that the Constitution prohibits the giving of accurate and nonmisleading instructions regarding postsentencing procedures. Pp. 472 U. S. 341-342.

MARSHALL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, IV-B, IV-C, and V, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part IV-A, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 472 U. S. 341. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 472 U. S. 343. POWELL, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

Page 472 U. S. 323

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